In a world striving for sustainable energy solutions, the quest for clean, abundant, and limitless power has taken centre stage. Offering the promise of a truly revolutionary breakthrough, nuclear fusion holds the potential to provide an abundant and environmentally-friendly energy source capable of meeting the world’s growing demands. 

Unlike nuclear fission, which powers today’s nuclear reactors, nuclear fusion harnesses the tremendous energy released when atoms are fused together rather than split apart. By replicating the processes occurring within the core of stars, researchers seek to unlock the secret to controlling fusion reactions on Earth, paving the way for a new era of energy production. 

However, despite decades of research and significant progress, nuclear fusion remains an ongoing scientific and engineering challenge. Overcoming the technical hurdles associated with achieving a controlled, sustained fusion reaction demands immense scientific expertise, engineering innovation, and international collaboration. Nonetheless, recent advancements in fusion research have reinvigorated hopes of a practical, net energy-generating fusion system in the not-so-distant future. 

The science behind stable fusion 

Nuclear fusion power is a way of generating energy by combining the centres of atoms, known as nuclei, together. This works by using extremely high temperatures and pressures to create an unstructured  collection of nuclei and electrons, called plasma. 

Inside this plasma, atoms can collide with each other with enough force to fuse their nuclei together. They then release a huge amount of energy in the form of heat, which then can be used to create steam and drive turbines similar to many other conventional power stations. 

The fuel typically used for nuclear fusion is two different isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium, which can be found in seawater, and tritium, which can be produced from lithium in nuclear fission. When these two types of hydrogen come together and fuse, they create helium and release vast amounts of energy. 

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There are several different ways fusion can be achieved: 

Magnetic Confinement Fusion (MCF): This method uses powerful magnetic fields to confine and control the super-hot plasma. The most common device used for MCF is called a tokamak, a doughnut-shaped chamber where plasma is held in place by a strong magnetic field. This prevents it from touching the walls and losing its heat, allowing the extreme temperatures required for fusion reactions to occur. The main challenge of this method is keeping the high temperature plasma stable for a long period of time.  

Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF): In this approach, tiny pellets of fusion fuel, such as deuterium and tritium, are compressed and heated rapidly. The compression is achieved using powerful lasers or particle beams, which apply intense pressure to the fuel pellet. The extreme heat and pressure cause the outer layers of the pellet to explode inward, compressing the core and initiating fusion reactions. ICF is often compared to igniting a mini hydrogen bomb. The main challenge here lies in achieving uniform compression and efficiently delivering energy to the fuel. 

Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF): MTF combines elements from both MCF and ICF. In this method, a magnetized plasma is rapidly compressed using a magnetic field and simultaneously heated. The compression and heating are achieved by impacting the plasma with a dense plasma or a high-energy particle beam. The goal is to reach high enough temperatures and densities to trigger fusion reactions. MTF is an area of ongoing research and development. 

Dense Plasma Focus (DPF): DPF devices utilize a pulsed electrical current to generate plasma. The plasma is formed and rapidly compressed by the electromagnetic forces produced by the current. The intense compression and heating of the plasma can lead to fusion reactions. DPF machines are relatively compact and easier to build compared to other fusion approaches. However, they face challenges in achieving the necessary plasma conditions for sustained fusion. 

Advantages and disadvantages

Fusion power has many significant advantages over other sources of energy. Fusion reactions themselves create no carbon emissions, with the only by-product of the reaction being small amounts of helium, an inert gas that can be released with no harm to the environment. The process is relatively efficient too; according to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, one kilogram of fusion fuel could provide the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel.  

Nuclear fusion is often confused with nuclear fission, but it is in fact a much safer and cleaner process than fission. Unlike fission, nuclear fusion produces no radioactive waste — only the reactor components become radioactive, and research into suitable materials remains ongoing. Due to the extremely small amount of radioactive material in each reaction, as well as the challenging nature of keeping the reaction going, large scale nuclear accidents like those seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima are not possible in a fusion reactor. 

The EU’s project to supply the first fusion power to the grid aims to come online around 2050

The main disadvantage of fusion power is the sheer challenge of making the reaction happen. Fusion reactions are technically difficult to achieve, and while recent technological advancements have made major strides, research into fusion power is still very much ongoing. The DEMO reactor, an EU project hoping to be the first fusion power plant to send electricity to the grid, is still in the conceptual phase, with the aim of being online around 2050.  

The other current disadvantage of fusion power is the extremely limited supply of tritium, one of the isotopes of hydrogen used to make fusion reactions happen. While future fusion reactors will likely be able to produce tritium as a by-product, the current supply shortages mean that today’s fusion tests are mostly being carried out using only deuterium, potentially impacting the quality of testing.

Is fusion still “just a few years away”?

As the technological race for commercially viable fusion power heats up, a number of projects around the world are working to make this technology part of our future clean energy mix. Immense amounts of private and government funding has been put into fusion power research and development, with the Fusion Industry Association’s (FIA’s) 2022 Global Fusion Industry Report noting that fusion companies have declared over $4.7bn of private funding to date, plus an additional $117 million in funding from governments. Of this, $2.83bn was made in 2021 alone, showing an increased appetite for fusion research. 

Fusion companies declared $2.83bn in funding in 2021 alone

Several private fusion companies, including UK-based Tokamak Energy and US-based Helion, are racing to produce commercially viable fusion power before the first government-funded projects. It remains unclear which will be the first to perfect this technology, but with billions of private investment pouring in each year, private firms could well be in with a shot at the gold.

Overall, despite the technical challenges involved in bringing commercially viable nuclear fusion to the grid, there is significant optimism in the industry. According to the FIA 2022 Global Fusion Industry Report, 66% of major players in the nuclear fusion industry believe that the first fusion power plants will deliver energy to the grid in or before 2035, while 60% believe nuclear fusion will be a commercially viable energy source in or before 2035.  

As humanity faces an urgent need to transition to sustainable energy systems, nuclear fusion stands as a beacon of hope, offering the tantalizing prospect of a future free from carbon emissions and dependence on finite resources. Although formidable obstacles remain, the pursuit of nuclear fusion represents a remarkable testament to human ingenuity, scientific progress, and the unyielding quest for a brighter and cleaner tomorrow.